Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Favorite shade plant combo

A yellow, gold and burgundy grouping for shade that I love is the vigorous small ground cover Hosta 'Golden Tiara' teamed with variegated golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureloa') and purple shamrock (Oxalis regnelli), often sold as Oxalis triangularis. The oxalis is not hardy, so I used to lift them in the fall and store them over the winter.

I use this combo to great effect in a narrow bed alongside the house. Because the surrounding plants have doubled in size over the past four years (I really must split those hostas), there's not a lot of space left in the ground. My solution: I now grow the oxalis in containers.

In the fall, the pots go into the basement and without water, the oxalis goes into dormancy and overwinters in an unheated room.

Every March I repot them in fresh container mix, and put them into our polyhouse to start growing. By May they're ready to spend the summer outside again. It's a bit of trouble, but the lovely purple leaves and soft pink flowers are definitely worth the effort.

And did I mention that they increase every year? If you grow oxalis, you'll have twice as many each year - which means lots to share with your gardening friends.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


When we first moved to our country property eight years ago this month, the place had been rented out for years, and what wasn't a rough hayfield was a tangle of burdocks, buckthorn, poison ivy, thistles and rusted farm detritus.

That first season, aside from growing a few tomatoes and annuals in what passed for a front yard, we didn't garden: we just cleaned up big time. Bulldozers were involved.

In our second spring here, we laid out a four-square garden divided up by paths, which began as vegetable garden with wood-chips for the paths. The garden turned out to be too big for vegetables - there are just two of us to eat them - and so I planted it full of bulbs and perennials.

A couple of years later, we added compacted stone chip paths edged with pavers, and the next season planted boxwood around the edging beds, which we might (or might not) train into a proper hedge one day. The picture above was taken the year we planted the boxwoods. Looks neat as pin, doesn't it?

And now only seven years after planting, the four-square garden is having a mid-life crisis. I noticed last season that my laissez-faire style of gardening – minimal deadheading, allowing self-seeding – had resulted in a lot of thugs taking over.

The worst of the lot have been Verbena bonariensis (Brazilian verbena), Knautia macedonica and drumstick alliums, (which look like grasses in the picture, above).

I still love all these plants, just not the pushy way they take over if they're not deadheaded.

Lesson learned: although this is a country garden, deadheading isn't out - it's going to be IN this year big-time.

A couple of days ago, we tackled the many overgrown masses of drumstick alliums in the four-square, and dug in and pulled them all out. They were mostly lined up near the front of the beds between clumps of lavender (last spring's replacements for an edging of unruly catmint, which I'd pulled out the year before).

Now, the lavender can breathe and grow, and the garden is starting to regain shape and a measure of grace.

Until now, much of our gardening here has been filling the space with plants. We have planted scores of trees and shrubs, and hundreds of perennials (many of those grown from seed when we were first starting out and needed masses of plants cheaply).

A part of me is taken aback that radical editing is necessary so soon, but I shouldn't be surprised at all: plants grow. Gardening once you've got something going is actually the process of controlling growth. A good gardener edits - a lot.

All of this has me reaching for my well-annotated copy of the book Growing Pains by Patricia Thorpe, which I intend to re-read immediately. It appears to be out of print, but you can find copies on Amazon.com for a song.

Here's are a couple of samples from the book:
"Remember those early days when you carefully set out three of each perennial in the border? How did those three suddenly become fifty?"

"There is the disconcerting sense that the garden, something we once thought of as our creation, is evolving in unexpected ways, growing beyond some of our aspirations while coming up woefully short with respect to others. … We may notice definite changes in our gardens before they reach the end of their first decade. For some gardens it will be a seven-year-itch. Others may be faster or slower to mature to this dangerous stage."
If you're in the same boat and need help, I highly recommend this book. There's plenty of solid advice and best of all, Thorpe gives you permission to rip out those daisies or irises or alliums or overgrown shrubs that are giving you headaches.

My gardening motto for the seven-year-itch: more control, less chaos. The trouble is this all translates into a four-letter word: WORK!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Weather-crazed gardener

One of the things that first struck us when we moved to our 10-acre country property was the big sky. Although we don't live in western Canada, which really is big sky country, our southern Ontario sky can be pretty impressive.

It certainly was a couple of nights ago when a major thunderstorm with golfball sized hail swept through our region. The storm missed us - we had sunshine all the while - but the dark, almost black, sky to the east was amazing to see.

As I always do when interesting weather comes, I took my camera (I use my digital Panasonic point and shoot for this sort of thing, one of the newer models with virually no shutter lag) and managed to capture lightning, just visible in the picture above our barn.

Like most avid gardeners, I'm an obsessed weather-watcher, and only truly content when what the weather is doing is good for my plants.

So give me just enough rain - an inch a week during the growing season, please. And I want decent snow cover all winter, long cool springs, summers that are warm, not hot, and gorgeous autumns with just enough rain and that wonderful coolness in the air.

Ah, dream on, gardener: The reality is weeks of dryness, or so much rain that you can't keep up with the mowing. In winter, (at least lately) it's been too mild, alternating with too darned cold. And don't get me started on summer: heat, humidity and drought are the bane of my gardening existence. So pat me on the head, bring me a tall, cool Vitamin G (gin and tonic with lime), and make me to sit on patio with a book.

With regard to nature, gardeners and weather, here's how garden writer Henry Mitchell, once put it:
"There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get one with the high defiance of nature herself, creating in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises."

Exactly right, now where's that G&T?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Book with sample garden designs

Looking for sample garden designs or garden layouts on the web? Well, you don't find too many. That's because garden designs are time-consuming to prepare and tailored to suit a given property and the gardener's personal preferences. There are, of course, garden designers you can hire to help you, but most homeowners don't have the budget for that.

However, an excellent guide to garden design comes from the Rodale Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials, which includes good sample design layouts and lots of tips on combining plants effectively, as well as an easy-to-use basic perennial encyclopedia.

It was my favorite garden design book as I was learning about perennials and garden design. I liked it so much, I wore my copy out! Here's more information about it and another of my favorite garden design books.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

It's spring

It's mid-May, and my house is a mess, the piles on my desk are frightful and the laundry needs doing. But the garden looks heavenly, especially when I look beyond the dandelions. Rain finally came after three weeks and all looks lush and right with the world again.

Spring is a bit of a race between the gardener and the weeds, between chaos and control, from one flower to the next. I have to remind myself to stop every day to simply appreciate the succession of flowers - from snowdrops and crocuses to daffodils, tulips, magnolias, serviceberries and (almost here) the crabapples.

The barn swallows are back, swooping and chattering, ordering us to open those barn doors every morning. My dog, Toby, once again is outnumbered and gets dive-bombed as he walks across the yard.